Published January 23, 2012
Suddenly, Mario Balotelli doesn't seem quite so amusing anymore.
One could fill pages, and many grateful newspaper hacks regularly do, with stories both real and surely imaginary about the insouciant playfulness of the striker whose goals are edging Manchester City ever closer to the English Premier League title.
A soccer millionaire with friends who let off fireworks in his bathroom, who has turned up for work wearing a woolly hat that looked like a chicken's comb — and who was filmed struggling with the simple task of pulling on a vest — is going to generate headlines and laughs.
This 21-year-old kid in a grown man's body excels at both.
Ho-ho, Mario. The question — "Why Always Me?" — that Balotelli had printed on his T-shirt when City thrashed Manchester United 6-1 in October must surely have been a joke, because his high jinks make the answer so obvious.
But there is nothing even remotely humorous about a player who stamps on an opponent's head. That would be an act of nastiness.
Does Balotelli have a streak of that inside him, too? It's a legitimate question after he trampled Sunday on the right ear of Scott Parker, the Tottenham midfielder whose job of breaking up opposition attacks with his solid tackles puts him in harm's way and often leaves him face down in the grass.
The video replays looked bad but one can never be sure that they tell the whole story. Only Balotelli can be certain whether he aimed to hurt Parker or stepped on him accidentally.
With City and Tottenham tied 2-2 and with just eight minutes left, Balotelli struck powerfully for goal. Parker bravely blocked the shot, the ball ricocheting off his thigh as he threw himself in the way of the City forward. In doing so, Parker also tripped, hit the deck and became entangled in Balotelli's feet, sending the Italian tumbling, too.
As Balotelli was falling, his right foot kicked downward and thudded, with the studs of his boot, onto Parker's head. Slow-motion replays clearly showed the sequence of events. It certainly looked vicious. But what the videos could not prove was whether there was intent from Balotelli.
City assistant manager David Platt said he had not seen the incident and so wasn't prepared to judge it.
"Different angles on TV can show different things," he said.
Which is true.
But professional soccer players and their bosses have repeatedly shown that they cannot be relied upon for honesty in such situations. There's too much resting on soccer — money, pride, results, loyalty to club or country, even jobs — and win-at-any-cost deceit is too engrained in the modern game for those involved to confess on a regular basis when they or their players have sinned.
Thus, when Real Madrid defender Pepe issued a statement to say that his stamp last week on the hand of Barcelona forward Lionel Messi was "an involuntary act" we could only take his word for it, even if our eyes suggested something different.
Occasions when a coach acknowledges that a player was wrong and that a referee was right are sufficiently rare to be refreshing. That happened Saturday with Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Mick McCarthy.
"I don't have any complaints about the sending off," McCarthy said after Karl Henry was shown the red card for kicking backward into the Marc Albrighton's chest when the Aston Villa midfielder was on the turf. "I'm not excusing him at all because he's back-heeled him."
More often, coaches see only what they want to see. Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp was quick to condemn Balotelli, even though he, too, cannot have known whether his stamp on Parker was deliberate.
"It's not a nice thing to do, really, is it?" said Redknapp. "It's got no place in football."
Intentional or not, Balotelli was lucky. Referee Howard Webb had already shown him a yellow card for an earlier foul and could quite easily have decided that trampling on Parker was sufficiently dangerous to warrant another, which would have sent him off. Webb, however, apparently didn't see the incident.
Balotelli could still face punishment. The English Football Association decided Monday to charge him with violent conduct, giving him until Wednesday evening to respond. Because Balotelli has already been sent off once this season, he could be banned for four matches instead of the usual three if found guilty, depriving City of his goals as it seeks to cement its lead of the Premier League.
But that would be too late to change Sunday's 3-2 scoreline. Balotelli, of course, scored the winner for City, a last-minute penalty he took with the unflappable cool of Clint Eastwood.
As is his wont, Balotelli didn't smile or celebrate, but instead stood rooted to the spot, arms out in the shape of a cross.
A lovable or mischievous rascal enjoying the last laugh.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at twitter.com/johnleicester